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Lenin at the British Library


The founder of the world's first socialist state, Vladimir Il'ich Lenin, visited London six times between 1902 and 1911, and on at least five of these occasions found the time to call into the British Museum whose Library collections were in his view unparalleled. At the time of his 1907 visit he said:

"It is a remarkable institution, especially that exceptional reference section. Ask them any question, and in the very shortest space of time they'll tell you where to look to find the material that interests you. ..Let me tell you, there is no better library than the British Museum. Here there are fewer gaps in the collections than in any other library."

Praise indeed from this man who was already well acquainted with many of the major libraries of Europe and Russia.

His attachment to the Library dates from 29 April 1902, when for the first time he entered the round Reading Room to commence his studies. He had arrived in London with his wife, Nadezhda Konstantinovna Krupskaia, earlier that month in order to set up publication of Iskra, the newspaper of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (RSDLP). The Twentieth Century Press had agreed to carry out the printing at 37a Clerkenwell Green, (now the home of the Marx Memorial Library), and soon accommodation was found for the new arrivals not far from there, at 30 Holford Square, Pentonville.

It was from this address that Lenin wrote his first letter to the Director of the British Museum requesting permission to study in the Library.

The letter, dated 21 April 1902, bears the signature Jacob Richter; the pseudonym which he had adopted to throw the Tsarist police off his track. The reference required by the Museum authorities was supplied by the General Secretary of the General Federation of Trade Unions, I. H. Mitchell, but this did not satisfy the Admissions Office as Mitchell's home address could not be found in the London street directories. Lenin wrote again enclosing another recommendation from Mitchell, who this time used the address of his union's headquarters. The following day Lenin was informed that a Reader's Ticket would be granted to him, and four days later, on Tuesday 29 April 1902, he signed the Admissions Register and was issued with ticket number A72453. This was valid for three months only, but the period was extended, first by three months, and then by a further six months. Finally, on 29 April 1903, exactly one year after entering the Library for the first time, he surrendered his ticket to the authorities and a few days later left England for France.

In August of the same year he returned for the famous 2nd Party Congress, during which the RSDLP made its historic split into "menshevik" and "bolshevik" factions, but there is no evidence to suggest that Lenin found the time to visit the Museum on this occasion, despite the fact that he said he used the Library whenever he was in London.

However, during the 3rd Party Congress, which again took place in London (from 25 April to 10 May 1905), it is known that he paid a visit to Great Russell Street, and there copied out extracts from the works of Marx and Engels. Unfortunately, there is no record of this in the Museum archives.

His next visit to London took place in early summer 1907, and from the reminiscences of his colleagues we know that he spent roughly a week in the Library at the beginning of June. Indeed, the Library's Temporary Admissions Register does mention that a certain J.P. Richter was admitted in May of that year, (no.3782), but one cannot be sure whether this was Lenin or not: - Richter was not a particularly uncommon name. However, one can be quite sure about the details of his visit the following year.In mid-May 1908 he arrived in London with the express intention of spending a month in the Museum to work on his book, Materializm i empiriokrititsizm, and fortunately, his correspondence with the Museum authorities has been preserved in the Library archives.

On 18 May 1908 under his real name, Vladimir Oulianoff, he wrote to the Director of the Museum requesting permission to study in the Library and referring to an earlier donation of two of his books. His recommendation came from a certain J. J. Terrett, an English Social Democrat, but history repeated itself, and just as had happened in 1902 the authorities refused him admission. Two days later he wrote again enclosing a second reference, this time from his old friend, the manager of the Twentieth Century Press, Harry Quelch. This proved sufficient, and as had happened in 1902, he immediately received instructions to call into the Library to pick up his Reader's Ticket. The following day, 22 May, he signed the Admissions Book, and was issued with a three-month pass, number A88740.

Lenin made use of the Library's collections on only one more occasion; during his lecture-tour of 1911, when he visited several European cities to deliver his paper on "Stolypin and Revolution". The London reading took place on 11 November in the New King's Hall, Commercial Road, Whitechapel, and on the same day the Museum issued a temporary pass to Mr. Vladimir Oulianoff, making a note of his address:- 6 Oakley Square, N.W., in their Card Index of Readers.

Although Lenin may indeed have had a favourite seat in the Reading Room, neither he nor anyone else has left any indication of which seat that may have been. Several numbers have been suggested, including: G7, H9, R7, R8, and L13. In fact, the latter is probably the most likely, positioned, as it was then (and indeed still is), in a row opposite the open-shelf reference works on British and European history, which he doubtless made use of on several occasions.


Codes which appear in brackets ([Cup.403.w.8]) indicate British Library shelfmarks.

Taking into account Lenin's great admiration for the Library, and the fact that he donated several of his books to other European libraries it is surprising to find only one recorded gift from him in the General Catalogue of Printed Books. This work is entered as:

"Za 12 let. Sobranie statei". tom 1,2 chast.1. S. Peterburg, 1908. [Cup.403.w.8] Author's presentation copy to the British Museum.

However, the British Museum's Book of Presents lists at least four Lenin donations. These are:

Present 152: (11 Jan. 1908) "12 Years Ago" by Vl. Il'in, tom 1 (in Russian) Pres'd. by the Author.

Present 537: (14 Mar 1908) "The Agrarian Question" by V.C. Oulsanov [sic] Pres' the Author, Rue des deux Ponts 17, Geneve.

Present 857: (11 Apr 1908) "Development of Capitalism in Russia" by V.Ilin, 1908. (In Russian) Pres'd. by Mr. Oulianoff,17 Rue des deux Ponts, Geneve.

Present 2153: (11 Nov 1911) "Deux Partis" par G. Kamenoff,1911 Pres'd. by Mr. Oulianoff, 4 Rue Marie Rose, Paris

Presents 152 and 537 are the two parts of "Za 12 let", referred to as donations in the Catalogue, while 537 and 857 correspond to the two books mentioned in his letter of 18 May 1908. The latter appears in the General Catalogue as:

"Razvitie kapitalizma v Rossii. Izdanie vtoroe, dopolnennoe" S.-Peterburg, 1908. [08226.i.22]

while 2153 is entered as:

"Dvie partii..s predisloviem N. Lenina," Paris, 1911 [8094.k.43]

Many more of Lenin's books held by the British Library bear the yellow stamp signifying a donated work. However, these are either not listed in the Book of Presents, or are entered as anonymous gifts or as donations from elsewhere. A case in point is Present 582 for 12 April 1902:

"What's to be done" by N. Lenin (in Russian) Pres'd. by J.H.W. Dietz, Nachf. Stuttgart.

This work is entered in the catalogues as:

"Chto delat'? Nabolevshie voprosy nashego dvizheniia." Stuttgart,1902. [C.121.c.3.]

Unfortunately, it is impossible to say whether Dietz,his German publishers, made this donation on their own account, or whether they were instructed to do so by Lenin.

On the other hand, the Library's copy of the first edition of "K derevenskoi bednote"- ("To the Village Poor"), Zheneva, 1903. [C.121.a.6/8], also bears a yellow stamp, and even though it is not listed in the Book of Presents, one may be inclined to believe that if Lenin had to donate only one of his works this would most certainly have been his choice, since it was based largely on the research work which he carried out during his first visit to the Library.

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Katya Rogatchevskaia, Lead Curator, Russian Studies
European Studies
The British Library
96 Euston Road
United Kingdom

Tel: +44 (0)20 7412 7587


Peter W. Hellyer, Curator, Russian Studies
European Studies
The British Library
96 Euston Road
United Kingdom

Tel: +44 (0)20 7412 7582